Little Moscow and Moscow Row: Part 1

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General Strike of GWR workers

This month, we have the first of a three-part article looking at the history of the two Great Western Railway housing estates, ‘Little Moscow’ and ‘Moscow Row’ in Cornwall, and their economic and political standings over the years.

Green Close and Chy-An-Mor in Truro and Penzance respectively were two Great Western Railway (GWR) housing estates. How these two relatively small housing estates came to be labelled as ‘Little Moscow’ and ‘Moscow Row’ was discovered  through a series of Cornish Audio Visual Archive (CAVA) oral history interviews by Treve Trago (Truro) and Veronica Kelly (Penzance). The interviewees are past residents and members of the Cornwall Labour Movement (CLM) who had connections to the railway industry. The relationship between the tenants and the Labour Movement will be explored later.

This paper also includes material from the GWR comprehensive planning and architectural records, which are held in Truro Record Office (AD1553). The oral history testimony of the tenants who influenced the ‘Bolshevik’ label is yet untold. This article should go some way to rectifying this historical oversight and note the contribution made by the railway workers and their families to the history of the Cornish Labour Movement.

Railway workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were liable to be moved anywhere in the country either at their employers request or if they wanted a promotion. The short notice clause in their contracts hindered many of them in applying for local council housing. It also made it difficult for them in the private housing sector. This prompted many rail companies, including the GWR, to promote Housing Associations to combat this problem (Cousins, 2006).

In Cornwall, the money to buy land to build both housing estates in Truro and Penzance was loaned interest free by the GWR to the Great Western Housing Associations (GWHA).  The latter was a non-profit organisation from South Wales who had already built a number of railway houses in other areas (AD1553/2).

In the early 1920s both Truro and Penzance railway yards were expanding. There was also a shortage of council housing in both areas (The Advertiser 18 February 1932).

In 1924, the GWR decided to open up a Locomotive Depot at Truro and 20 sets of men from Plymouth moved to Truro … A set was a driver and fireman

(Boynes, M. Interviews 18 July 2000, 16 January 2001, 11 April 2006).

The two housing estates in Truro and Penzance were registered as separate housing associations GW (Truro) and GW (Penzance). Registration with the Registry of Friendly Societies in London took place on 13 January 1926. Both associations were duly constituted and governed by the ‘Registry’ rules under the Industrial and provident Societies Act 1893. Copies of the rules could be obtained for 1s. from the Registrar of Friendly Societies, Central office North Audley St. London. The Welsh Town Housing Trust was engaged to manage both estates. On completion, however, the day-to-day running of both estates was the responsibility of annually elected local committees made up from the tenants.  Some of those tenants are still alive and their hidden histories have been recorded for CAVA (AD1553/1), (AD1553/2).

Tenants and railway workers who were lucky enough to be allocated a railway house from the waiting lists had two ‘tenancy’ choices deposit and mortgage or, buy shares

in the properties and pay rent. The weekly rent in 1926 for a parlour house in Green Close was 8s. 3d. Most workers chose shares and rent. The minimum shares which could be bought was twenty-five. Shares could also be bought by workers whilst they were on the housing waiting list (AD1553/1/5), (AD1553/2/7).

The agreed tenancy commenced on completion of each house. If the tenant could not afford to buy shares, they paid regular instalments on top of their rents for the required number of shares. Tenants who chose this route were reminded every so often that the society relied on its share capital to meet its financial responsibilities of the scheme. When a tenant gave up their tenancy, they were repaid their share capital (AD1553/2/6), (Bowden, V. Interview 28 July 2005).

The GWR Housing Association from Wales built Green Close an estate of 36 houses. The association was non-profit making and due to the housing shortage in Truro, the GRW loaned the money on an Interest free basis. At the time, it was stated there was a choice of paying a deposit and having a mortgage or having shares and paying rent. The majority, which did not include my father, preferred the shares option and so shares of £25 were bought, a substantial amount in those days 1926, and over the year’s interest of two and half percent was paid yearly on that amount

(Boynes, M. Interviews 18 July 2000, 16 January 2001, 11 April 2006).

Dividends were paid annually on shares. Investors from the business community were also encouraged to invest in the scheme and attend the AGMs.  In Penance, records show Amelia Hawkins, Thorne Esq. and Marchant & Co were long-standing investors. (AD1553/1/7). In Truro, the biggest shareholder was a Miss Simm, Plymouth, holding stock valued at £967 and owning £200 worth of shares.  Later correspondence thanks Miss Simm for assisting the Society in its early period. After the 1929 AGM, she is repaid her loan stock and asked if she wanted to reinvest in the GW (London) Garden Village Society (AD1553/2).

Newspaper headlines welcoming the estates read ‘Solving the Housing problem’. ‘First batch of 36 dwellings … for railwaymen in Truro’ (WB, 6 November 1925).

The rapid expansion of rail track into twentieth century Cornwall created employment for large numbers of people and expanded the tourist industry. Some commentators believed its development as one of the most significant events in twentieth century Cornwall (Mais, 1928). Albert Jenkin (1970) notes the GWR in 1926 was Cornwall’s largest civilian employer’. There has been little comment however, about the two unique GWR housing estates, which could be called a Cornish political enigma.

The housing estates were unique because they were the only two ever built in Cornwall.  It was a political enigma because all its residents were known to have aligned themselves politically with the Labour Party in Conservative and Liberal marginal constituencies. No other Labour-aligned housing community in Cornwall was labelled ‘Little Moscow’ and ‘Moscow Row’ making them a political gem in the history of the Labour Movement in Cornwall.


Labour Garden Party, 1953
1953 Labour Garden Party

The Housing Association ethos in the 1920s was similar to the early twentieth century housing cooperatives. It was a partnership between the state, the local authority, private investors and tenant. Early housing associations were considered philanthropic endeavours and modelled on the romanticised pre- industrial English village that presupposed an improved way of life for the occupants (Bayliss, 2001:169).

Philanthropy in previous railway housing projects, however, was not the reason for building houses on housing estates.  Nineteenth-century railway companies saw the advantages of providing houses as a means of securing and keeping its skilled workers.  Added benefits were being able to take rents from employee’s wages and giving eviction threats when faced with insubordination. Twentieth century housing associations were not so harsh. Thus, it did not affect the tenants of ‘Little Moscow’ and ‘Moscow Row’.

Railway owners   …exercised a strong paternalistic influence, providing staff with housing … they controlled workers with almost a military discipline (Railway workers and Towns 2006).

The Truro and Penzance housing estates were built between 1925 and 1926. Their   housing associations were formed in August 1925 and registered on the 13th January 1926 under the Industrial Provident Societies Act, which meant both estates were exempt from various legislative Rent Acts. Truro had no problems with their local housing authority and duly received subsidies under the 1924 Housing (financial Provisional) Act.

The 1926 subsidy was £9 per house annually for a period of 40 years. The local authority’s contribution was a council tax rebate of £2 per house for 20 years. Proposed rents were 10s. and 8s. a week for a parlour house and non-parlour. From the records and oral testimony, we know the rents were slightly less (AD1553/1), (AD1553/2), (Bowden, V. Interview 28 July 2005).

In contrast, Penzance Housing Association was refused a grant by West Penwith Rural Council. The council argued the society had failed to make out their case. Furthermore, railway workers were too well paid to receive a subsidy. Therefore, the Council felt it could not award a grant in addition to the Exchequer’s grant (Royal Cornwall Gazette 24.10.26).

In their successful appeal, the Society reminded the Council that they had been originally founded to build houses for their workers to overcome the Council housing shortages. Therefore, to break an original agreement could only result in dissuading other Societies from embarking on further schemes (AD1553/1).  Appreciation of   Railway housing schemes was noted by local newspapers when they reported the housing associations annual general meetings.

At Truro and Penzance, where societies have been registered, their housing schemes have been much appreciated. The railwaymen being able to obtain security of housing without purchase … they can surrender tenancy at short notice and secure the amount invested in share capital (The Advertiser 18.02.32).

The three bedroom parlour and non- parlour houses on both estates were designed by London architect, Thomas Alwyn Lloyd (F.R.I.B.A).  The land was bought by the housing associations with an interest free loan from the GWR.  Builders, Henry Lobbo, Mevagissey built Green Close estate and local building firms were hired to maintain the houses.

The same high building standards used by other rail companies was applied and both developments were built of virtually identical material. Key characteristics of the housing estates were the identical architectural design. A mixture of three bedrooms, parlour, non-parlour, and indoor bathroom.  The tenancy rulebook stipulated all the rules, which governed the maintenance of house and garden. Normally major alterations and repairs were the responsibility of the Housing Associations (AD1553/1/4), (AD1553/2/4).

 There were three types of houses varying in size. They were Parlour and Non- Parlour. Why the difference I am not sure, because they all had three bedrooms and a Parlour however, the Parlour variety also had a dining room. The bedrooms varied in size and were bigger with each successive type. The Parlour Type also had a toilet inside the house with a bathroom. I do not know if the size was a choice or the luck of the draw (Boynes, M. Interviews 18 July 2000, 16 January 2001, 11 April 2006).

As far as the houses were concerned, it was the tenant’s responsibility to paint and decorate but structural repairs painting the houses outside was done by the Housing Association  (Bowden, V.28July 2005), (Pope, K. 27 August 2005).     

End of part one.

This three-part article will continue next month. Enjoyed reading about this subject? You can catch another academic article on Cornish Celtic Identity here.

Veronica Kelly joined CAVA in 2004 and worked across various projects, notably the Cornish Labour Movement Project in 2005 presided over by Tony Benn. This article is a tribute to the men and women connected to Cornwall’s railway industry.